New Round of Jail Sentences Commuted by Obama

By Christopher Zoukis

The Obama administration has unveiled a second batch of 2016 commutations for federal prisoners, scheduling early release for another 58 inmates. Most of them will be released at the start of September, although some will remain incarcerated until early 2017.

Like the 61 federal prisoners whose commutations the White House announced in March, the newest group were serving time for drug charges, primarily for powder or crack cocaine; 18 had been sentenced to prison for life. A total of 110 prisoners thus far have had life sentences commuted during the Obama presidency.

Besides the 119 commutations announced by the White House this year, another 187 federal prisoners received sentence commutations during the earlier years of the Obama presidency. The president’s total for commutations to date stands at 306 – which already exceeds his six most recent predecessors’ combined total. Clinton issued 61, both Bush presidents combined awarded 14, Carter gave 29, Ford signed 22, and Nixon issued 60, according to an annual scorecard on the Department of Justice website which tracks statistics on presidential pardons and commutations over the last 116 years.

Obama got off to a somewhat late start, issuing only a single commutation during his first term and just a total of 10 more during his first six years in office.  But that pace began to quicken after the Department of Justice launched its “Clemency Initiative” in April 2014, and promised to give priority consideration to clemency applications from federal prisoners who met an exacting set of qualifications (non-violent, no significant criminal history, served at least 10 years, good conduct while incarcerated, likely to receive a lighter sentence for the same crime today).

Assisting applicants on legal issues and the substantial paperwork was the Clemency Initiative 2014, a coalition of non-profits and non-government advocacy groups, including the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and three others. Using volunteer lawyers, commutation applications soon soared: the annual average of about 1,000 received during George W. Bush’s presidency climbed to over 6,500 in 2014.

The Clemency Initiative says it has submitted over 1,000 applications, and groups active in the coalition say the White House pardon attorney has thus far cleared 120 of them, with President Obama approving 86. The head of the Clemency Initiative says about 30,000 of 36,000 commutation applications have already been reviewed, despite some early glitches.

A Department of Justice official described the clemency effort as an element in a broader campaign to reform the criminal justice system, which also includes working with the U.S. Sentencing Commission on issues like mandatory minimum sentences, and with Congress to enact broad-reaching criminal justice reform laws.

The White House has also made clear President Obama intends to keep working on clemency orders throughout the remainder of his time in office, a view reinforced in a statement he gave to the Medium website in connection with the latest batch of commutations. The statement also prodded Congress to make lasting changes in sentencing for federal crimes, and noted bipartisan efforts there to reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses. Excessive penalties, the president added, neither serve taxpayers nor make them safer.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com